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Jens F. Laurson
Ionarts, May 2010

Take equal parts James Bond, 70s soft porn soundtrack, and Henry Mancini and you should get something akin to the concert suite derived from Alfred Schnittke’s music to the 1970s film “Sport, Sport, Sport”. “Sport”—mocking the exertions of sportive Russians in pursuit of athletic activity and excellence—won a sort of Soviet silver merit badge of film: it was immediately banned by the censors. (Gold would have gone to those eminently deserving censorship, but subtle enough to slip through.) I am sure that with that in mind—and the film screened, the whole package would turn this silly, sometimes saccharine, and flamboyantly ethnic music into poignant accompaniment. Unfortunately we don’t have the film to go with it.

“Adventures of a Dentist” is more indicative of Schnittke’s polystylism with its many baroque and classical quotes; and where he cuts and pastes Tchaikovsky (on the accordion) in “Sport”, Handel and Bach are his subjects in “Dentist”. There is no way to avoid a broad smile when Schnittke serves up the catchiest two minutes of Charleston between all this (I probably hit the repeat button half a dozen times)…The Berlin RSO doesn’t seem to mind, though—they play through the bopping and bubbling score sounding fully convinced and engaged under Russian film music-veteran Strobel’s baton. If I were a Russian expatriate, I’d grab this (volume four) and another in this Capriccio-SACD series of Schnittke’s film music, always to be at hand for a vodka infused evening of melancholia and laughter-through-tears. I, meanwhile, might check out some more Charleston, instead.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, September 2009

When the first three volumes of Capriccio’s ongoing hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.1) survey devoted to the film music of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934–1998) became difficult to find (C71041, C71061, C71127) there was reason to believe no more would be forthcoming. But here’s another, and many may pronounce it the best yet!

As composers go, Schnittke was about as eclectic as you can get in his fondness for borrowing from the past. Consequently there was a "polystylistic" plasticity in his approach to composition that made him an ideal movie composer. As anyone who’s seen a film scored by him can tell you, there’s something chameleonic about the way the music perfectly adapts to what’s on the silver screen. This undoubtedly explains his popularity with the Soviet Union’s top directors, which resulted in his scoring over sixty films.

When heard without the benefit of a visual element, even some of the greatest scores ever written become incoherent and fail to hold the listener’s attention. Enter Frank Strobel, our conductor here, who’s assembled stand-alone suites from each of the movies included in this series. You’ll find he’s done us a great service by making some of Schnittke’s most approachable music more widely available in a condensed concert setting.

The suites on this disc are from two satirical films, The Adventures of a Dentist (1965) and Sport, Sport, Sport (1970), by Russian director Elem Klimov (1933–2003). Both immediately met with Soviet disapproval and were banned, not to reappear until shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev instituted Perestroika in 1986. The movies may have been black and white, but Schnittke’s brilliantly orchestrated scores are Technicolor.

The six-part suite from Sport…opens in jazzy fashion [track-1] with a variety of plucked as well as keyboard instruments marching along to a bongo beat. The percussive chaos that introduces the next section [track-2] turns into an elephantine promenade. It bolsters up a tune played on the electric guitar, which could be out of an Ennio Morricone (b. 1928) score for one of those Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. The saxophone then introduces a swaggering idea, and the section ends with a percussively explosive jam session worthy of an "007" adventure.

The mood shifts dramatically in the next part [track-3], which is a delicate minuet of Latin American persuasion. But you ain’t heard nothin’ yet! The following section [track-4] is a bizarre blend of tidbits from Rimsky Korsakov’s (1844–1908) operatic suites, one of the opening themes from Tchaikovsky’s (1840–1893) fifth symphony (1888), and another popular favorite whose identity is left to you. Part five [track-5] briefly evokes the previous minuet, but then Schnittke regresses stylistically, and taking his cue from J.S. Bach (1685–1750) and Handel (1685–1759), concocts a Dixieland concerto grosso for winds, including saxophone and trumpet. The finale [track-6] is reminiscent of the suite’s opening and builds to a chaotic climax that concludes with an interrogatory chord on an Ionika electric organ.

The suite from Adventures…is in nine sections with a relaxed beginning [track-7] that recalls the title music from Maurice Jarre’s (1924–2009) score for Dr. Zhivago (1965). Then there’s a bouncy Baroque period offering [track-8] that even includes a harpsichord. Listening to the waltz that’s next [track-9], it’s easy to imagine a ballroom full of swirling hippos. A wistful episode [track-10] with flutes hovering over a walking bass drum follows, providing a contrast to a delightfully catchy "Charleston" number [track-11].

The spirit of the Baroque returns in the restful next part [track-12], while sarcasm reminiscent of that in Prokofiev’s (1891–1953) Lieutenant Kijé Suite (1934) seems to fill what follows [track-13]. The penultimate section [tracks-14] alludes to the air from J.S. Bach’s third orchestral suite (1717–23), and then this cuspidate caper ends unpretentiously with a lovely serenade for guitar and orchestra [track-15].

Incidentally, in 1972 the composer came up with a Suite in the Old Style for violin and piano whose five movements were drawn respectively from tracks 12, 8, 3, 5 and 10 above. This also exists in an orchestral version transcribed by violinist/conductor Vladimir Spivakov (b. 1944) and cellist Mikhail Milman.

Frank Strobel began arranging Schnittke’s film music into concert suites at the request of the composer, and has since been recording them for Capriccio. This, his fourth volume in what’s turned out to be an award-winning series featuring him conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, is arguably his finest to date. The performances are superb, and that’s saying a great deal, considering the variety of musicians required to play the many exotic instruments (accordion, banjo, electric guitar, harpsichord, Ionika electric organ, mandolin and voice synthesizer among others) called for in these off-the-wall scores.

Recorded in one of the world’s finest venues, the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin, the sound is demonstration quality, and the wide assortment of instruments present is guaranteed to test every aspect of your system. In the stereo CD and SACD modes the soundstage is huge, but well-focused with a perfect balance maintained between a parade of soloists and supporting tutti.

The orchestral timbre is natural sounding on the stereo tracks, particularly the SACD one, over the considerably extended frequency range generated by the many plucked as well as percussion instruments. At the same time the bass, which goes extremely low, is quite clean. Those with home theater systems listening to the SACD multichannel track are guaranteed a center seat and a sonic extravaganza of considerable proportions.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, July 2009

I should first explain that Schnittke has been among those few composers I simply cannot abide.  That was before hearing this disc and learning that it is just the latest of four volumes of some fascinating music for the films by the Soviet/Russian composer who lived until 1998. While he was one of the most important composers of “serious” music in the former Soviet Union, he also composed scores for over 60 filmscit’s just that they weren’t distributed in the West so we don’t see Schnittke in the company of John Williams, Korngold, Elmer Bernstein and the rest on the Hollywood scene.

And Schnittke’s film music is quite different from his abstract music. He obviously wanted to catch the ears of the proletariat.  He is not afraid to quote or parody every sort of music: works of other composers, jazz, popular music, tango, world music, you name it. His quotations of other classical composers or styles reminded me of William Bolcom, but then fellow Russian composer Shostakovich (who also did many soundtrack scores) was not above quoting other well-known tunes such as the William Tell Overture.

Many of these films were fairytale farces, parodies or absurd theater, and Schnittke created appropriate scores for them, always keeping in mind the views of the censors who would be seeing and hearing them. Irony was heavy in some of the early Soviet films, but later the filmmakers and composers had to be more sophisticated and subtle in getting their messages across. Both of the films in this volume were directed by Elem Klimov, and like most of his films was banned until Perestroika allowed their release. The first film suite has six cues and the second nine. “Sport, Sport, Sport” of 1970 was a satire on the Soviet promotion of athletic prowess and fitness—little wonder it was banned!  It has a dizzying variety of musical sources—including Mahler, Bach, Chopin waltzes and a tango—played on electric guitars, celestas, prepared pianos, mandolin and bongos, among others. A sparkling minuet is the theme music for a gymnast who features in the film. Now I want to see the film.

Klimov’s satirical film about a dentist is quite different from Jack Nicholson’s early portrayal of a man who absolutely loves being in the dentist’s chair. The moral of Klimov’s satire is “he who stands out is soon cut down.”  The score adopts concerto grosso forms in the style of Bach and Handel—there is even a quote from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Again, unexpected instruments pop up—a harpsichord playing a Charleston, a tenor sax and a marimba. One scene sounds like a slow movement from a Bach violin concerto. The hi-res surround sonics are of course superb—a major contrast to the barely listenable mono sonics on most older Russian films.

Stephen Eddins, June 2009

Listeners familiar only with Alfred Schnittke’s frequently spiky concert music may be taken off guard by the fluency with which he created film scores in a completely accessible vernacular aesthetic. Given the catholicity of languages he incorporated in his polystylism, though, it’s not surprising that when required to, he could isolate an idiom and write music of a more conventional stylistic unity. While he does draw on a number of influences, including jazz, Baroque, and folk song, these are used in the way a traditional film composer might employ them, not in Schnittke’s usual astonishing juxtapositions. What may be surprising is the genuinely memorable lyricism of this music—these scores don’t sound like they were casually knocked off, but are lovingly and carefully constructed, the product of an exceptionally fertile imagination. The scores for the Russian films by director Elem Klimow—Sport, Sport, Sport (1970) and The Adventures of a Dentist (1965)—have an easy lyricism and driving rhythmic energy that would make them attractive to fans of more traditional film soundtracks. Both pieces are notable for their inventive orchestrations, strong dramatic impulse, and seamless incorporation of elements of pop and European folk traditions. The two multi-movement suites are arranged by Frank Strobel who conducts the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in stylish and lively performances. The sound of Capriccio’s SACD is exceptionally vivid and well-defined. The recording should be of strong interest to Schnittke fans, not only because if the compositional versatility it demonstrates, but because the music itself is so engaging and enjoyable.

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